The Umuofia and Mbanta villages of the Igbo tribe in Nigeria, around 1900
The setting in Nigeria around the turn of the 19th century is extremely important; it allows Okonkwo’s life to straddle the pre- and post-European imperial era. Because Okonkwo experiences both periods, we the reader have a window into the dramatic changes that occurred in Igbo culture and society as a result of imperialism. For example, we see two different manners in which crimes of murdering a clansman are treated: Okonkwo is exiled for seven years under Igbo laws while another man, Aneto, is hanged by the white court for a similar crime.
We also see two different examples of courts and justice. In the traditional Igbo system of justice, villagers bring their complaints to a group of nine elders dressed as masked gods, and the group jointly and publicly settles disputes. However, when the white men arrive, they set up their own court which settles disputes in favor of the highest bidder and isn’t above secretly ambushing respected clansmen who come to court to have a civilized discussion. These are only a few examples of how the temporal setting allows for clear and easy comparison between the Igbo way of life before and after the arrival of Europeans.
The physical setting of forest the forest villages are extremely important. The Umuofia clan has an elaborate religious system largely based on their natural environment. Surrounded by dense, dark woods, the forest is both respected and feared as a chief god, the Evil Forest. The earth goddess is also revered and feared; as farmers, the Umuofia rely completely on the produce of the land and are subject to drought and flooding. The earth goddess is seen as in control of the weather and productivity of the land, so much of the clan’s social structure is set around not displeasing the earth goddess. Fear of offending the earth goddess motivates the punishment for many crimes, such as Okonkwo’s seven-year exile for killing a clansman. Achebe’s descriptions of the isolation of the Umuofia people and their complete dependence on their natural setting make their culture and practices understandable to a Western audience.
2. Narrator Point of View:
Third person omniscient
Though most of the novel is focused on Okonkwo, the narrator generally provides insight into the thoughts of most characters. There are times when the narration is focused around different characters – namely Ikemefuna, Nwoye, Obierika, and Ekwefi. The multiplicity of voices allows the reader to see different characters through a variety of lenses. Access to the internal thoughts of a variety of characters also gives dimensionality to the Igbo people as a whole – Achebe never lets the reader assume that the Igbo people are homogenous and could be summed up in one single character.
Tragedy, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction
As you might guess from the title, Things Fall Apart is a tragedy. It tells the story of an African clan being invaded by outsiders and falling to pieces. The novel also tells the story of Okonkwo, a man of wealth and status who nonetheless has a tragic flaw – fear of being perceived as weak – which leads him to make many poor life decisions. Eventually sent into exile, our protagonist is not in his home village when the outsiders – white missionaries – first arrive. Thus he is not able to save his people during the early stages of danger. In the end, because of he lacks the ability to save his tribe, Okonkwo kills himself. As stated by his best friend, Okonkwo’s death is tragic because white men drove a good man to kill himself. Okonkwo’s personal failings might also have had a hand in it.
Clear, Descriptive, Sympathetic toward the Umuofia
Achebe narrates events pretty objectively, without many embellishments. Readers are left largely to impose emotion on the text and decide for themselves whether characters are admirable or justified in their behaviors. However, towards the end, Achebe begins showing sympathy towards the Umuofia by describing the brutalities inflicted on the people by the white government. The last paragraph of the book in particular shows a purely pretentious and self-satisfied District Commissioner with an inflated sense of Western superiority.
5. Writing Style:
In the narration, Achebe keeps it simple, directly to the point, and centered on nature. His goal is to use language to depict how the Ibo view their world. You’ll also see a bunch of Ibo words and phrases pop up here and there. Achebe did an amazing job capturing the spirit of his native Igbo language in his secondlanguage, English.
In addition to the cadence and content choice, Achebe also uses a ton of proverbs – which is indicative of the Ibo’s traditional oral culture – as well as lots of tiny stories shared people and well known in certain villages, used to discuss everything. These stories are how the people communicate with one another; they’re used to explain acts of nature, traditions, history, why people act a certain way. Keeping all that in mind, let’s take a look at this interaction, a few paragraphs into Chapter 12:
"Some of the women cooked the yams and the cassava, and the others prepared vegetable soup. Young men pounded the foo-foo or split firewood. The children made endless trips to the stream. […]
"It is the result of great medicine,” said Obierika. “The people of Umuike wanted their market to grow and swallow up their market and their neighbors. So they made a powerful medicine […]
"And so everybody comes," said another man, "honest men and thieves. They can steal your cloth from off your waist in the market."
From its very title, Things Fall Apart foreshadows the tragedy which the novel depicts. We don’t mean to be downers, but can a book about things falling apart really have a happy ending? The novel documents the falling apart of the Igbo tribe due to the coming of the Christian missionaries and the rule of the English government.
The only point in the book in which the title is referenced is Chapter Twenty, when the main character, Okonkwo, and his friend, Obierika, are discussing the invasion of white men into their community. Obierika says, “The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.” This passage clearly ties the destruction of the Igbo people’s way of life to sneaky, divisive action on the part of European missionaries and imperialists.
The phrase “things fall apart” is from a poem by W.B Yeats, which Achebe quotes more extensively in the epigraph
Epigraphs are like little appetizers to the great entrée of a story. They illuminate important aspects of the story, and they get us headed in the right direction.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart, the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
– W.B Yeats, "The Second Coming"
The epigraph is the first four lines of “The Second Coming,” easily one of the most famous and frequently quoted poems in all of Western (and apparently Nigerian) literature.
By using lines from “The Second Coming” as the introduction to his book, Achebe points out parallels between a time of chaos in European history and the upheaval caused by the European colonization of Africa. In a way, Achebe uses the language of the colonizer (literally and figuratively) to enlighten them on the point of view of the colonized. The specifics of the poem are also incredibly relevant to Things Fall Apart as a whole.